Maree came back from her Magid business in Japan exhausted and cranky, about two weeks after Nick had returned from Maxwell Hyde’s place in Blest. Nick was still on leave from school. Dad had been relieved, had nodded and looked carefully not disbelieving when Nick told him some of what happened, but it was hard, really. He didn’t think it would have done much good, making his Dad worry when it was mostly done. Besides, he was all right for the most part. He had been convincing enough about this point that Dad had grudgingly gone to the GravitaCon, where he would be doing book signings, but thankfully no speeches.
Nick would have preferred to tell Maree first – at least the parts of it that he could think about without shuddering – but she wasn’t there when he arrived. So.
While waiting, Nick studiously went back to his London life and carefully planned out when would be a good time to have that discussion with Dad and Romanov and Maxwell Hyde. It seemed pretty clear that it would have to wait at least another year, and when he thought about it, that wasn’t too bad. He did love magic – that sounded overly dramatic, but like really wasn’t a strong enough word. But there was still something he really enjoyed about being an ordinary Earth kid. He suspected it was the videogames and whisky and – well – all right, feeling a little more special than everyone else, because of the other things he knew. He didn’t much like how haughty that sounded, so he was grateful for the distraction of Maree’s car sputtering into the driveway.
“You’re staying for the weekend?” He tried to ask nonchalantly, picking up Maree’s two dufflebags.
She seemed to immediately pick up the unspoken what about Rupert, and pushed her glasses up her nose. “Out, for at least a week, maybe, in that new marshy empire they’ve assigned him. Problems with rogue bacterial spores attacking the farmers’ crops.” She shut the door behind her with relief, towing her laptop bag. (It had been a gift from Rupert, after their spectacular row about him invading her private files. Nick had gotten her the fancy leather case, using his inheritance.) “I’m staying until next Friday. Besides, Uncle Ted said he needed a beta reader for his latest chapters.”
“Right,” Nick went, and found himself looking up at the ceiling. “Well, Dad left this morning and he’ll be at a convention for the next few days, so I’m not sure you’ll get to read that story after all.”
She stared at him, then laughed. “I missed you, too, Nick. Here,” she fished in her laptop bag, and produced two plastic cases. One of them had a crack across the cover, but Nick eagerly took them both. “These are for you. They’re the only games I could find in English,” she said, apologetically.
“That’s awesome,” Nick answered, feelingly. “Thanks! How was – how was your trip?” He was torn between genuine interest and wanting to run upstairs and start on the two games immediately – the one with a cover illustration of a full-armor knight cutting down a half-decomposed zombie looked particularly promising. When they had started traveling different worlds, Nick had nearly forgotten what a marvel it was to travel to different countries, too. He envied Maree, but she had assured him in her last email that it wasn’t something that happened often (they had Magids in all the other continents, of course), and besides it was really mostly work and quite a headache.
“You can go,” Maree answered, already pacing towards her favorite couch in the living room, “I’ll tell you over dinner. First I need to have a nap.”
Maree ended up sleeping until eight the following morning. She woke up disoriented and a little achy, but feeling much better than yesterday’s post-travel fatigue. She wandered into the kitchen, extremely hungry, wondering if she should wake Nick now or later.
She had been the first one to introduce him to coffee, actually, which might have been a bad babysitting move on her part (though whether Nick had ever really been a baby was debatable – somehow he had seemed to be a teenage-toddler, all cool-eyed and sly even at six), but it was blessed relief being able to understand him earlier in the day. Of course, after years of practice, she was bound to understand him anyway, so when he ambled down the stairs and bleated into the kitchen, in a tone of slurred surprise, “Marrow jeer?” she could briskly answer, “Yes, I arrived yesterday, remember?”
“Oh. Wammah befus,” he added, after a pause, and sank into the nearest chair. Maree had dug around in the cupboard earlier and produced two different boxes of cocoa puffs. Nick had obviously been compensating for their horrible new cook Yvonne. Maree hadn’t actually tried her food yet, but the vast amount of delivery leftovers in the fridge probably proved it. Oh well. There wasn’t much she could do in that respect. She set the cereal and a carton of milk in front of Nick, some toast that she had managed to avoid burning, and some butter and marmalade. Then she sat down across from him and started to eat as well.
She had been the first one to introduce him to beer, too, but that was unintentional, one weekend in London when her parents were going through one of their roughest patches, a few months before the divorce, and she had gotten a bad grade in her last Biology exam to top it off. Secretly it was also that she had been rejected by a male classmate for the third time that year, but Nick wasn’t to know that as she popped the cap off a beer bottle with teenaged fury. He reverentially goggled at her as she chugged it down, and it was only when she was halfway through her second bottle that he had said, meekly for his overconfident ten-year-old self: “Can I try some?”
That had clearly not been a brilliant move, although she later on decided that Nick’s rapidly developing taste for expensive whiskey was a hereditary thing, and not her fault at all. (Moot point, maybe, because Uncle Ted wasn’t Nick’s real father, but it wasn’t her problem that he kept his booze in places altogether too easy to reach.)
They spend the next two days bridging the gap during which they hadn’t seen each other with the stories they had gathered since. Maree was looking better all the time – it was something Nick found himself observing almost unconsciously, but he had spent the last few years wondering if she was going to be okay. Maree’s gloominess and self-confidence problems had grated on him, even if he didn’t really know what to do about them – and he had himself to look after, too. (Growing up wasn’t an easy business, even if he privately thought he had made quite an art of it. But he already knew he was a self-centered boy; this could simply be another offshoot of it.)
The worst time was when that ass Robbie dumped her, but even before that she had been unhappy about how she looked and where she was going in life, and of course there was that muddle with her family too. She and Nick didn’t have much time to play Games during that period when Maree was a teenager and he was only starting on adolescence – she never really stayed around long enough – but even then, they always spun their Stories, rehashing old favorites and thinking up new ones. Nick did them partly because he really enjoyed them, and partly because he thought they made Maree feel better. Looking back on it, he might have been embedding feel-better spells in these Stories without realizing it, although Maree was inclined to brush them off almost as soon as she received them. (Not all of it was the thornlady stuff – part of it was her doing it to herself, too. Teenage angst.)
It was strange to know that a lot of those Stories had been beaten out by reality, recently.
Maree was still the best storyteller he knew. It sort of embarrassed him, how much he liked her. It wasn’t even that Maree could get all sobbing and difficult to please; Nick did often try with her, because she was that important. He knew Maree thought he simply had a low opinion of all women, but that wasn’t true. He had always admired her – and now Roddy, but that was a whole other thing. Besides, Maree was a proper Magid. Oh, it wasn’t that. He ditched this conversation with himself, around the same time when Maree snapped the lid of her laptop shut and said, “How about a walk?”
A walk, if they were at Nick’s house, almost always translated to up the hill. She didn’t really need to ask. They were out the door in five minutes, loping up the familiar path. If he tried he could still remember some of their first few walks here – the navy blue canvas roof of his pushchair, the afternoon sun peeking out from it every so often, an old lady crooning at Maree that her brother was adorable and Maree’s exasperated “He’s my cousin.” Later on they learned to say that bit in chorus.
Today it was lovely and breezy, and it still amazed him how quickly they made it all the way to the top – how hills that once seemed like mountains shrank, when you grew up and your legs got longer. They flopped down on the grass and said nothing for a moment. This was another one of their specialties. They were both fairly talkative with each other most of the time, but they also had that kind of friendship (siblingship?) where silences didn’t matter, and they could do their own thinking without feeling awkward.
“So you’ve called a dragon,” Maree said at last, musingly. “I would have liked to see that. I’ll bet it was beautiful.”
“It was terrifying,” Nick answered, and flinched at the memory of its wet, smoky voice, the dangerous curve of the claw that had whisked his would-be murderer away. “But also pretty awesome,” he admitted. “I wish you could have seen it.”
“Me, too.” Maree grinned at him, and half of her heart-shaped face was lit up pink from the setting sun. Nick realized that the whole Blest thing had been one of the few major adventures he hadn’t shared with Maree, and although he had told her about it, it wasn’t the same. Maree, too, had been doing Magid things that Nick didn’t even know the half of. But there were some things you just had to experience alone, or with other people; and that was okay. Another thing to learn and master in the art of growing up.
“You’re happy, though? You’re having your own fun.” He did his best to make it declarative. When he thought about it, the new, happier Maree probably did not need so much encouragement. But Nick was working on the selfless thing. This was practice.
“Yes, I am,” Maree answered, leaning her chin on her knees. Nick thought about all the things that had made her happy, recently – Rupert probably topped that list, and Nick thought Rupert was quite awesome (even without the magic, the computer games would have guaranteed him a high rank in Nick's estimation) – but he was still glad of the idea that he had contributed to her joy somehow. He watched the sun sink over the edge of the hill and slowly fade away into murky pink evening, lingering almost wistfully, like it was trying to tell him something.
After that first night, Maree had the immense honor of staying in Nick’s lavish basement. It was still an honor, really, because she knew Nick was the sort of person that liked to keep his private spaces private, but there wasn’t much of a choice because the attic had been filled up with some of Uncle Ted’s stuff, and a few of Janine’s things that neither Nick nor Uncle Ted knew what to do about. Also, Maree wasn’t comfortable sleeping in Uncle Ted’s room since he used to share the bed with Janine. She didn’t say this, of course – she was bent on never mentioning that name unless absolutely necessary. Anyway, Nick was very gracious about letting her stay on his exceedingly large, comfy couch.
It was, she learned a little later on, already foggy with sleep, also kind of a relief to him to not be alone in the house. He was having nightmares. She had felt that something was a little weak, or not quite right, with Nick – at least when she returned – but she didn’t really want to push him about it. She felt the edges of his unease, though, in her Magid sense - even without meaning to. Nick hadn’t been sleeping well for weeks, now. When she probed it discreetly, she saw that the disquiet stretched back to the Easter holiday, then sort of doubled up in nastiness just before six weeks ago.
Some of them, she knew, had to be about Babylon. There were other things she couldn’t know, and didn’t dare try knowing – dreams were an especially dangerous area of magic, and they caused a great mess when they were tampered with. Maybe some of it was the dragon, or the dark paths, or the feeling of despair that he hadn’t known before someone tried to kill him with real hatred. (“Worse than that time being shot at by Gram White?” she had asked, and he had nodded a hasty yes.)
Babylon was the only thing Maree could wholly sympathize with, of course. She remembered the slippery rocks and the wildly swinging gardens, how easily they could all have pitched into nothingness. Sometimes the hissing, bitter voices from the wood came back to her, and sometimes she remembered the way a branch had brushed her bare stomach, her numb acknowledgement that she was naked and this was dreadful. The candle flame burning down, while she blinked and hoped that it would still be alive when she returned to the other side. The dead eyes of the three children, and how she had longed to turn around, even knowing that it could have meant death.
“That was really scary, you know,” Nick murmured, suddenly, as if he could see into her brain. “Babylon, I mean,” he added, before she could wonder if he’d learned how to probe minds after all. She could sense that he hadn’t actually meant to bring it up, but it was very early in the morning. He had been jolted out of sleep for some reason, and was saying things. She thought of climbing that terrible, slippery wall, leaning against Rob and desperately trying not to hurt him. A hazy vision of Nick frowning at her, his forehead creased, telling her not to move, stay here, okay, Maree? Stay.
“I know, it was,” she answered. She blinked up at the darkness from the couch and thought again about how much Nick had done for her then. How his selfishness melted away – and this wasn’t the first time it happened, but when the stakes were as high as they had been, he’d pulled through for her. Master Nick had given up his genie wish to save her. For that, she owed him plenty. Even if she knew he ached about it sometimes (the what if?), he had never really asked for anything in return. Anything that mattered half as much, anyway.
“Nick, thank you,” she whispered. For a moment she clean forgot whether she had ever said it at all – then the answer was no, although they both knew it already. She propped herself up on her elbows to look at him, stretched over all of his sumptuous bed. “Thank you,” she repeated again, a little more loudly. But he had already gone back to sleep.
On Tuesday evening, a shimmering gap opened up on their living room floor and Roddy walked through. She stood there, nervously twisting her hands in her sweater, while Maree and Nick gaped at her over the lids of their computers. She was wearing a bulging backpack. “Sorry, I know it’s incredibly short notice, but I needed a place to stay for tonight,” she started babbling, desperate to have everyone understand. Nick snapped his mouth shut and tried to arrange his face to give nothing away, but it was too late – Maree looked at him, then turned her attention back to Roddy, a queer little smile starting to spread across her face. Nick had done his best to leave Roddy out of his storytelling – not like he could – and he thought that had worked out pretty well, when Maree didn’t push him about it. He knew now that he had been too naive.
It turned out that most of Salisbury -– including Mrs. Candace – had come down with some kind of cosmic flu, but Roddy had somehow avoided it. Mrs. Candace had assured her that she’d get it wiped out soon as she was clear of it, but she estimated that it would take at least two days, to get all of the sickness gathered and then flushed away somewhere. Then she had done some kind of divining and told Roddy that Earth was probably the closest and quickest she could get to, since the Progress was extremely busy at the moment with rearranging itself, and her Granddad Hyde was on some other galaxy, and Romanov had switched out a part of his island and had thus become harder to trace.
“And I wasn’t sure I could stand to see Grundo yet, you know, I still think we need some time apart,” she was saying, from the couch where they had gestured for her to sit in. “But then Mrs. Candace said well, there’s always Earth, and I told her it was imposing, and I don’t want you to think that I – er –” she might have changed her mind about saying something; Nick was too busy trying not to be hurt by her words, because obviously she wasn’t here to see him. “Er, that I was being impolite. But I also don’t like to challenge Mrs. Candace because we’re still only getting to know each other.” She looked helplessly from Nick to Maree.
“It’s not a problem,” Maree burst out cheerfully. Nick nodded. He thought he was just about to say the same himself; but she might have saved him from saying something silly and resentful, like, And I love you too, Roddy. The double meaning would probably crush him. “What I do consider a problem is that we haven’t yet been introduced!” She looked at Nick expectantly.
“Oh, er – Maree, this is Arianrhod Hyde, or Roddy. She’s, um, a Magic User from Blest. Next in line to being the Lady of Governance – the top female mage there, really,” he went, and cursed himself for sounding so idiotic. “We met – well – I told you all about the last few weeks.”
Maree nodded, still bright and dangerous in that way Nick had sometimes forgotten she could be. “Pleased to meet you, Roddy. I’m Maree, Nick’s half-sister. I’m a Magid like your granddad Maxwell Hyde. And a vet. In training, I suppose.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Roddy answered, in her extremely well-bred Court way.
She didn’t mean to sound so fancy, Nick knew. It was jut her reflex. She’d have a tough time here on Earth with that accent, though – or maybe not, because she was gorgeous. Still was, and she was in better fitting clothes than he had ever seen her, and – it had only been two weeks. To distract himself, he got up and asked, “Tea? Biscuits?
“I’d love some,” she went, still apologetic. Her stomach growled as if to prove this claim.
“Actually, it’s nearly dinnertime,” Maree went, looking at the clock. “Why don’t I make spaghetti? Or is that your field of expertise, Nick?”
“Ha ha,” Nick replied dryly. “I sincerely hope Rupert has been teaching you.”
“He has,” Maree answered, falsely injurious. “Anyway, it won’t take very long. You two can help me in the kitchen.”
Her pasta turned out better than expected - light yet tasty. Nick spent dinner wondering at how quiet it was when he and Roddy weren’t surrounded by kids. He was extremely grateful that Maree didn’t try and make anything awkward; then again, he had done the same for her and Rupert. Roddy seemed frosty and nervous for the first half-hour, but after that she warmed up and talked rather cheerfully about her lessons with Mrs. Candace. They were obviously doing her good, helping her redirect some of the enormous store of magic inside her.
Maree volunteered Nick to wash the dishes, saying Roddy had better get herself settled, while eyeing Nick meaningfully. Nick looked blank for a moment, and then he improvised, “The two of you can share my bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.” I’m a saint! he thought, rather shocked with himself, but he was promptly sidetracked by the idea that the girl he liked might actually be sleeping on his bed.
“I couldn’t possibly,” Roddy answered.
“You’re our guest,” Maree replied, smoothly, in her end-of-discussion way. In the whole sparring-for-dominance thing, Nick reflected, Maree had been winning too often lately.
“I like her,” Maree said, slipping a pan that held the remnants of mushroom-and-tomato sauce into the soapy sink. Nick had managed to avoid learning domestic things for most of his life, but he had made an effort to learn after his Mum had been killed, and during his stay with Maxwell Hyde he had done his share of the housekeeping, because Dora couldn’t be trusted with it. “She’s – well – ordinarily I wouldn’t like pretty girls, but she’s not that kind. She seems awfully sensible, a bit too serious. Sort of like a girl Rupert,” Maree continued, passing him a chopping board.
“Don’t make that analogy, please,” Nick moaned.
“Oh, all right. All I’m saying is, I can see she’ll be a tough one to crack,” Maree said, almost too cheerfully.
“Yes,” Nick replied mournfully. It was no use lying to Maree. Always better to have her as an ally. Besides, there were a whole bunch of things he had to worry about when it came to Roddy – Grundo, for one thing. Nick liked Grundo a lot (it still surprised him that he could say such a thing of someone younger), but if Grundo started growing up, he could turn out to be serious competition. And there was still Roddy herself – including her nerves and bossiness – to work around. “I’m not really trying yet, at this point.”
“Smart of you,” Maree conceded.
This was how they invented the Witchy Dance for Luck: it was one of those terrible weeks when everything was just all wrong. Someone had called Maree fat in school, and back then she wasn’t fierce enough to fight back; plus her parents had just had one of their enormous, chilly spats. She and Nick had been lounging about in the kitchen, doodling with Nick’s new crayon set, when he suddenly muttered aloud that his Mum had been rampaging at him and suffocating him with her sickly sweetness. “It’s worse than normal,” he insisted, when Maree raised her eyebrows at him like, what’s new? “She keeps trying to force me into these gross overalls.”
“I wish there was something we could do,” Maree grumbled.
“Some kind of counter spell to stop the bad luck,” Nick said.
Maree thought back to the fat-insult incident. (Looking back on it, that might have been the advent of her body image problems as well.) They had dancing for one of their classes (social etiquette?) – boys and girls paired up in some kind of excruciating square dance that involved fanning one’s elbows outs and bobbing one’s head to either side. Maree was atrocious at it, like she was at anything involving grace.
The memory made her suddenly hop out of her chair and strike the most hideous pose possible. “We can dance a counter spell! Dances have strong magic. Come on, Nick – follow what I do.”
She was improvising, but Nick seemed to readily accept the idea. She hopped about, squatted, waved her arms. Nick did his best to copy her, giggling. Oddly enough, Maree felt an actual power start to build up in her as she did this – it wasn’t anything she could explain, but there was a sort of rippling somewhere in her chest that enlarged while she hopped about madly, envisioning better things, better things. When she felt that a certain degree of power had built up, she shoved her hands away from her forcefully, three times: flick, flick, flick!
“Luck, luck, luck!” She chanted.
Nick joined in enthusiastically. “Luck, luck, luck!” They bellowed together.
“Help me get through dance class!” Flick flick flick!
“Stop Mum bossing me about!” Flick flick flick!
It was probably a spell, too, that she never forgot those first moves, and could replicate them afterwards, modifying it to what felt most powerful – the ridiculousness growing proportionally. But the next day at dance class nobody gave her crap, and Nick told her the following weekend that Janine hadn’t tried to get him into one of her horrid overalls in days.
“The Witchy Dance works. It’s our secret weapon,” Nick said triumphantly. It was their battle cry, their pinky promise, their crazy shield to combat the world - then, and always.
Some of Nick’s nightmares involved Janine, too. Despite everything, she had been his mother – had raised him as much as could probably be expected of a fiercely ambitious consort with murderous intentions. She had washed his socks by hand, given him pocket money, lovingly told him about the Empire he was going to inherit, and – she had stripped Maree. His stomach still pitched downwards whenever he thought about the terrible ripping sound it had made, how small and pale Maree had become when he bent over her, quiet as stone and crying. Of course, this didn’t make the memory of his mother spread out on the ground, head bent at a strange angle, any less terrible.
Sometimes his brain wrote that part out completely – sort of like a fade-to-white in the movies, just nothingness with thorns creeping over the edge. He was grateful that Empire beam-guns weren’t like earth-guns, all exploded guts and messiness. He wasn’t even sure where they buried her afterwards. Too much had happened too quickly that he couldn’t collect his thoughts, and it was hard to feel the cutting pain when nobody else was sorry.
He knew Janine was terrible, but he had never wanted her dead. The word sort of pinballed around in his head, a horror echo, and just when he thought he couldn’t bear to hear it anymore, he’d see a vision of Janine – her thorny self, the bushy spikes shooting through the black pits of her eyes – reaching towards him for a hug. Then some kind of roaring wind blew and tore half her face off, and the bit that should have turned into nothingness became the gaping leer of Japheth. A salamander was quailing around in the black gap of his mouth, and he was still leaning in for an embrace, saccharine yet full of hate.
He jerked sideways, gasping, and couldn’t help jerking again when cool fingers brushed against his forehead. “Are you all right?” Maree was leaning over the couch with her blanket trailing over her shoulders, looking concerned. He could feel her calming him through touch, some soothing mindspell that he was grateful for. The room was freezing. He eased against his pillow and tried to concentrate on the waves of nothingness that Maree was sending into him.
He vaguely registered that Roddy was helping with the soothing, too – he caught an image of her sitting up in the bed, reinforcing whatever it was Maree had started. He was too shaken to be anything but appreciative because – well – this was part of things that he didn’t tell Dad, that he sometimes couldn’t convince himself about. Writing his report for Maxwell Hyde had helped him figure things out, but it only took the edge off, it didn’t take the pain away. When he looked beneath the surface, there were still things in the past year that chilled him, made him almost want to die.
“I’m fine,” Nick lied. Maree sighed and cupped both hands over his forehead.
“Let me take care of you sometimes,” she protested, but Nick actually wasn’t planning to put up a fight. He just smiled, gratefully, and when he heard Roddy laugh, brittle from worry, smiled even wider.
They didn’t talk about it all the next day, which Maree decided was a good thing. Nick looked like hell at breakfast, his eyes pasted shut, deep in the throes of his sleepwalking. She could sense that Roddy was exhausted, too – it might have been their healing in the middle of the night. It had been a fairly strong working, especially for an improvisation. Maree was glad Roddy had been there. It would have been hard work beating those horrors down by herself. She still felt worried for Nick, but something told her that this was something which, for the most part, simply needed time.
She almost felt that she couldn’t reveal this zombie version of Nick to Roddy, then she remembered that they had spent a whole month together. Roddy was probably used to him by now.
“Canfish meg,” Nick murmured, waving his fork around.
“Okay, but next time, don’t order so many,” Maree answered, removing his plate of eggs.
Roddy glanced at her with sleepy interest. “Grundo was the best at interpreting him, but it was guessing most of the time,” she said.
“I’ve always been able to understand him,” Maree answered simply. Sometimes, she knew, she took that for granted. Nick was capable of a lot, but in the end, he was still her younger brother. She wanted to save him from certain things, too.
“Yeh, yeh,” Nick garbled.
She saw the smile break across Roddy’s face, the way it read thank god! How she noticed her own expression and wiped it off lightning-quick. Maree could feel the relief building up inside her, too, a longing to laugh. Things were going to be different, now, because she was living with Rupert, helping keep the balance of the world. They were all learning complicated magic at a pace she wouldn’t have thought possible before. And besides the magic, Nick had Roddy here – Maree couldn’t tell if it was going to be them, but she found herself hoping so.
After everything – the lengthening secrets, the way magic had jolted things out of place, the distances that could widen without anyone meaning them to – there were still some things that never changed.
Nick had gotten his eyes halfway open, and he squinted first at Roddy, then at Maree. He shut them again and said, more coherently, “Coffee?”
Maree poured him another cup.